When I went along to my first camera club I was apprehensive. I expected a room full of middle class folks with lots of money and, coming from a working class background and with very little income, I wondered how I would fit in. I have to say, on the whole, the club was exactly as I’d imagined – very few local Cumbrians, a range of impressive well paid jobs, month long photographic holidays to exotic places and large amounts of very expensive gear. It sounds rather judgemental when I write that down, which isn’t my intention – it’s just the reality of the situation as I saw it.
What I wasn’t expecting, and which came as a lovely surprise, was the warmth of the members who quickly made me feel part of the group and the generosity of those who shared their help and knowledge with the club. Having said all that, the travels to far flung places and the state-of-the-art kit was difficult to compete against for someone like me, who had a 3rd hand seven year old camera with one lens and hadn’t been out of the UK since 1996.
Photography is a very expensive hobby and while kit doesn’t necessarily make for a good photographer, as I wrote about in this post, it helps. Enormously. When you’re struggling on with inferior gear it’s really hard to be competitive.
Gear aside, in order to gain distinctions from the camera club organisations of FIAP or the PSA you have to enter Salons. And Salons cost money. I’ve recently applied for my second FIAP distinction, the Excellence in FIAP (EFIAP), where I had to demonstrate I’d achieved 250 acceptances into international photography exhibitions, in more than 15 different countries. I’ve guestimated that the distinction has cost me in excess of £1000, which is more than my camera body, my printer or any of my lenses and looking back I wish I’d bought a better laptop with the cash instead.
I’m now branching out from the camera club environment to the wider art world, and it’s even more daunting and I have to be honest and say pretentious. Even the language used is cliquey and in order to be noticed you have to enter very specific exhibitions which, big surprise, often cost money and in some cases, like the Other Art Fair, a substantial amount of money (£2000 for 1 stand and 2 spotlights 😮).
Now I understand why there are very few successful working class photographers, because it’s almost impossible to make it on a low income. There appears to be few platforms which support your average man-in-the-street artist, which begs the question how skewed is art? If all we ever see is a depiction of the world through the eyes of the well educated, privileged, middle classes (as was found in this survey conducted in 2015), how representative is photography?
Our historical view of the world is massively biased. It is only during the last 50 or so years that art has been anything other than the preserve of the rich and our view of historical events throughout the ages has been from a privileged perspective. The working classes have always had very little leisure time and no money with which to pursue creative endeavours and because of that their viewpoint and experiences remain largely undocumented.
That very little has changed in 2020 is beyond depressing. While I’m encouraged that women are now more represented and championed in photography, as highlighted by the (very recent) Sony Alpha Female Award, I was disappointed that the 2020 winner is a student who, IMHO, should have a separate category. It’s almost impossible for a woman with a home, children and/or a full time job to compete with a young person who has the luxury of spending their whole week on art with the resources of a college or university behind them. And while there is now more of a push to support people of colour in the arts, and about time, there is still no push to support the working classes, be they black, white, male or female.
This very uneven playing field is one of the motivating factors behind my speaking engagements. I feel a duty to share my voice and experience. Many people who have been present at one of my talks tell me that it is quite different from the usual presentations they attend and that’s probably because I speak from a completely different vantage point to most of the artists on the circuit. My hope is that I can connect with that lone audience member who, like me back in 2013, is sitting there wondering how on earth they can ever compete and to give them hope that it is possible to succeed despite the odds.
“I’m so small” said the mole.
“Yes” said the boyThe Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
“but you make a huge difference”.
by Charlie Mackesy